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#4554, 11 July 2014

The Henderson Brooks Report

India-China 1962 War: An Open Secret
Wasbir Hussain
Executive Director, Centre for Development & Peace Studies, Guwahati, and Visiting Fellow, IPCS

Fifty two years after India suffered an ignominious defeat at the hands of the Chinese along the Himalayan heights in the present Arunachal Pradesh sector, one is amazed at the attempts by successive Governments in New Delhi to keep the war report authored by Lieutenant-General Henderson Brooks and Brigadier PS Bhagat a state secret. And this, after large parts of the so-called classified document, locked up in the vaults of the Defence Ministry and Army Headquarters, has been made public by Australian journalist Neville Maxwell in his blog in recent months and earlier in his well known book India’s China War.

India’s new Defence Minister Arun Jaitley, who less than four months ago authored an article making a forceful plea for making the Henderson Brooks report public to prevent “public opinion (from being) influenced by unauthentic sources,” made a U-turn to say the report cannot be declassified because it would go against the “national interest.” Now, this supposedly elusive report talks about the biggest faux pas made by Nehru’s Congress government and the military establishment of the time. Militarily flawed plans, faulty assessment by the Intelligence Bureau, a disruption in the chain of command between Delhi and forward Army formations coupled with a strange belief that there would be no armed response from Beijing to Nehru’s ‘Forward Policy’ forced India to face a war it was not prepared for.

What is there in the report that New Delhi is so wary about? Apparently, it was Nehru’s ‘Forward Policy’ and orders to establish posts far into the disputed border that acted as a catalyst for the war although the conflict was described in India as Chinese aggression across the Himalayas. This unresolved question, as to the trigger for the war, is largely believed to be at the root of the protracted hostility and trust deficit among the two Asian giants, and could well be the major source of the conflict over border incursions and the developing distrust over sharing the waters of the Yarlung Tsangpo or the Brahmaputra.

Take a look at how the Chinese made their foray into India, starting on 20 October 1962. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) came in on two separate flanks – in the west in Ladakh, and in the east across the McMahon Line in the then North-East Frontier Agency (Arunachal Pradesh). China had successfully occupied Aksai Chin - a strategic corridor linking Tibet to western China - the NEFA area, and had almost reached the plains of Assam. In the war in these treacherous terrains, 722 PLA soldiers were killed and around 1,400 wounded, while the Indian death toll stood at 1,383, and 1,047 were wounded. Besides, 1,696 Indians went missing and over 400 taken as prisoners of war. Although Beijing caught most by surprise by calling a unilateral ceasefire and retreating from India's Northeast while retaining Aksai Chin, the defeat at the hands of the Chinese is something Indians will find hard to accept. In fact, this episode is seen as a key reason affecting bilateral relations between the two neighbours.

Surprisingly, India’s Defence Ministry seems to think the report should remain a top secret “given the extremely sensitive nature of the contents which are of current operational value.” Well, the argument of a 52-year-old report that is still supposed to have”current operational value” is unacceptable. Now, New Delhi is readying itself to deploy the brand new Mountain Strike Force in the Himalayan heights by 2017, a fighting-fit Army facing the Chinese. Is New Delhi planning to model this force on the 1962 formations or model its strategy on the one used in 1962? If not, how is it that the 1962 war report could have observations of “current operational value”? These are silly arguments, to say the least.

The Chinese on their part have made available a considerable collection of documents related to the war with India to the Cold War International History Project of the Woodrow Wilson Center in the US. For India, this means that researchers, journalists and foreign policy watchers will be able to see the war better from a Chinese viewpoint rather than the Indian point of view.

Year 2014 is not 1962, and, therefore, India must gather the courage to declassify the report, put it out in the public domain, let people analyse for themselves the causes of the defeat. After all, if there are lessons to be learnt from the 1962 defeat, it is in India’s interest to let countrymen chip in with their thoughts. As Arun Jaitley wrote as recently as on 19 March 2014 on the BJP Website: “...to keep these documents ‘top secret’ indefinitely may not be in larger public interest. Any Nation is entitled to learn from the mistakes of the past. The security relevance of a document loses its relevance in the long term future. Any society is entitled to learn from the past mistakes and take remedial action. With the wisdom of hind sight, I am of the opinion that the report’s contents could have been made public some decades ago.” Jaitley obviously had no idea then that he was going to be sitting in the hot seat of India’s Defence Minister!

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